Living Apart Together


One in ten adults in Britain is in a relationship but not living with their partner.  Nevertheless, people who are living apart together (LATs) are not recognised as a distinct category in official statistics, they are usually counted as single, divorced or separated.

NatCen (the National Centre for Social Research), in collaboration with the University of Bradford and Birkbeck, University of London, has undertaken research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council about LATs.

Pod Academy’s Federica di Lascio went along to the launch of the LATs report at NatCen..  The speakers were Angela Neustatter, author of A home for the heart, Miranda Phillips from NatCen, Professor Simon Duncan from the University of Bradford,  Professor Sasha Roseneil from Birkbeck, and Penny Mansfield CBE, Director of the marriage think tank One Plus One.

Angela Neustatter: We live in times when relationships have such a very hard time. We know from the breakdown of marriages, and cohabiting and so on, how hard it is, and one of the reasons I became interested was from my own experience, which led me to writing a book last year called “A home for the heart” in which I looked at different ways in which ‘home’ is part of helping relationships (or indeed hindering them) – the role that home plays in the way we relate and how well or badly we may relate with our partners or with our children.

So I started to research LATs a bit more,  finding out how people were doing and what they were doing.  But the information around was all very ad hoc, very anecdotal, quirky stuff from the States – endless stuff about Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton.   Not very much that added up to understanding what the picture was.  Eventually, however, I found the two couples that I wrote about.

One couple were particularly interesting  because they’re a young couple, he’s just thirty, they have a small child, they’ve lived together for quite a long time.  But now he’s got a job in London, and he really has to be in London.  And she had said, “When I have a child, I want to live in Bournemouth, where I grew up, where there is space, air and sea and forest”, and he said: “Well, I can’t see how I can do that”.  So her response was, “That’s fine, during the week I will live in in Bournemouth and you come at the weekend, and that’s fine by me.  I’ve got family networks there.”.   And I have to say it seemed to me remarkably successful.  They could see many  positive things they  could pull out of the situation. They talk each day on the phone, so there was a real relationship going on in the absent times. It was moving talking to them because in a way they are learning on the job.

The other couple I interviewed were in their 60s and have been LATs for 20 years. They were interesting because they had both come out of bad relationships. They didn’t want to live together, they were both quite clear about that. So they both lived in Yorkshire, quite a long way from each other, 50 miles from each other, and he mostly would visit her in her converted barn.  They’d been doing this for 20 years or more when he went to America for a year on a job,  and that was a really testing moment of course and one they felt they had to address.  She’s aware that he is rather an attractive man,  she knew there would be ‘opportunities’.  She  said, “one of the things we’ve always done is to talk about everything, to try to talk about our relationship, even when it is difficult and painful.”  So they’ve done that, and it seemed to me that they had managed pretty well. It is quite clear that have been some tricky moments as she gathered from his emails and phone calls from America. They seem to me now a very good example –  clear in their own identities, clear why they are living this way. He’s very urban, she’s very countrified. They’re fairly sure that the restrictions on each other, if they tried to fit into each other’s life, would not be very successful, whereas now they meet and enjoy it and they can meet as often as they like of course, as often as they want to make the journey because they’re both retired and their children are grown up and so on (they didn’t have children together). As they get older they have an understanding they won’t desert each other, if it means living together to care for each other then that’s what they’ll do. And I thought this is your ideal situation,  to recognise that in order for your relationship to be prioritised, you may have to change the structure in which you live.

I think these couples represent two very good examples of LATs. They don’t represent everything in the research, which is fascinating and covers a huge social grouping spread, and it is carefully categorizing different situations. I found it interesting to contemplate how people in different circumstances live as LATs.

Miranda Phillips: This was mixed-method research. We started off with the representative national survey of LATs. We asked people: “Are you in a relationship but not living with your partner?”.  That yielded a sample of just under 600 LATs from across Britain, which formed the basis of our follow-up samples. So we approached that in two ways, we had a qualitative follow up which was semi-structured interviews with 50 of those LATs, and then from a different perspective, psycho-social interviews using a biographical narrative approach which is a much more in-depth method of interviewing. That’s why for that strand we did 16 interviews.

The first key question really is  “How many LATs are there?”.  We feel it’s a sizeable minority –  one out of ten adults or 9% of the adult population. But perhaps the more interesting statistic here is that this equates to over a fifth of those people who would be classified as single (and by that I’m including people who are never-married, divorced, separated and widowed). And yet, despite the numbers being relatively large for a group that we don’t often hear about, they’re only recently recognized in social research and largely ignored in terms of statistics, surveys, administrative data and, therefore, policy making.  Of course that has policy implications, but it’s also frustrating for some LATs themselves.  In fact most LATs will be wrongly classified as single when they’re filling in a form or a survey or the census. And the reason that’s important is it is likely to entail some assumption about the way they live. People quite  wrongly in some circumstances often conflate being single in relationship terms, being single in residential terms, and also being alone in your life. And that’s particularly the case for older people. And this is interesting,  the debates around this often use quite negative terminology,  They are talked about in terms of fragmentation, isolation, having social care needs etc. In many cases those assumption may be wrong anyway, but for over one in five, they’re not even acknowledging the fact that that person has a partner elsewhere, so it’s quite an oversight for this group that we’re not even collecting data about the fact that some of these people have a partner.

I should just add that only a third of LATs live on their own, so the assumption that they’re necessarily in a single person household would also be wrong in two thirds of cases.

So who are LATs? There are some common assumptions about LATs because you always hear about élite-celebrity couples; another assumption is that they’re professional commuting couples having to live away for work, for example.  In fact, we find LATs across all social groups, so they’re similar to the general population in terms of sex, the region of Britain that they live in, their ethnic origin, and importantly in terms of those two stereotypes I’ve just set out, social class is pretty much equally matched to the general population too – so in fact 41% come from routine or manual occupations or have never worked, which belies the idea of a kind of professional commuting class of LATs.  Another finding that suggested they’re not only professional committing couples is that two thirds of LATs live within ten miles from each other. It is clear that living apart is not necessarily to do with juggling a situation that’s being managed over distance. Having said all of that there are notable differences in some socio-demographic factors – not surprisingly perhaps in terms of marital status and household type,  but very notably in terms of age. And you can see quite clearly that LATs are predominantly young. The majority in fact are under 35 and the largest group (43%) are aged 16-24. This might lead to an assumption that actually what we are calling LATs are simply a life stage for young people at an early stage  in a relationships, not yet ready to cohabit – no different to what’s been going on for decades – so why are we labeling them as a group and investigating them?  It is certainly true that some LATs are in that position, but it’s a much smaller percentage than the  43% of young people you see here. But it’s also more nuanced than that.  You can’t say that all young LATs are in that position.  And other LATs completely defied the stereotype. 11% are aged 55 or over, 41% have been together for 3 years or more and 19% have been together for 6 years or more, and I should say that it does include some of the 16 to 24 years old.

Also some LATs have come to this relationship with relatively complex relationship histories. A fifth of them have lived with a partner in the past, and that is the same current LAT partner with whom they had lived in the past, but had now decided to live apart.  We know that 30% are either married now or have been, so they’re divorced, separated or widowed. We also know from some of the psychosocial interviews that there were some people who felt this was the most significant intimate relationship of their life. So that doesn’t really fit with the assumption that they’re just trying out a new relationship to see where it goes and whether it might work to live together. And we also know from that element of the research that some people can use LAT as a response to a previous troubled or difficult relationship.

Simon Duncan: Why are people living apart together?

Just to explain those categories.  First there are people think it’s too early in a relationship to live together now,  though they envisage living together as the ideal hypothetical way.  That includes people who say they are not ready to live together.  These are mostly younger people, in short-term relationships perhaps, but some of them might be thinking it was too early, or they weren’t ready, for several years.

The second category is “constraint”.  That is those people who would like to live together now but they’re prevented by some external factors, generally a financial factor or some other factor such as family opposition.

Then there is what we’ve called “situational” LATs: they live apart because of the location demands of outside agencies, typically an employer, an educational establishment, perhaps a care home (where one partner lives in care home), one partner is in prison, one partner is in army barracks.

And finally what we call “preference” LATs,  those people who could live together, the external obstacles aren’t so great, but they prefer not to do so. Only 8% made their main or only reason for living apart together the fact of their own jobs, only 1% admitted to benefits loss as their main or only reason. So far we’re talking about main and only reasons here, because people in the survey could tick more than one option if they wanted to, and about half of them did.  But even if you look at those who ticked all reasons, that’s only 4%.

Most LATs actually had a mixture of constraint and preference in living apart. Many experience some sort of housing of financial constraint even if that was not always decisive. And nearly everybody in the interviews and in the surveys mentioned the advantage of living apart in terms of increased autonomy, increased personal space, even people who were determined to live together as soon as they possibly could, still mentioned this advantage of living apart.

Preferences is a funny concept.   Few people preferred to live apart in the sense of: “Oh, I want to live apart as my chosen lifestyle”. But we found quite a lot people who had what we called ‘negative preference’. Ideally they might prefer to live together, to cohabit, but they were chastened by their earlier experience of cohabitation that hadn’t worked out, had been rather painful.  Or they didn’t think their current partner was so suitable to live with – an extreme case would be an alcoholic partner.  That’s called negative preference.

Then there were obligations to others which some people felt.  Perhaps because they were bringing up children, particularly teen-age children and this  was their home and shouldn’t be disrupted by another partner moving in, or there was an infirm elderly dependent.

So preference is a complex subject.  It is rarely a clear preference for living apart together.

I am now going to turn to what they do. Here is Katy, she’s rather typical actually. Her partner lives a ten minute drive away. They met daily and they’re constantly phoning and texting. That’s not an extreme case, it’s actually rather typical – most people are in contact frequently and remember that almost two thirds of them live within ten miles of one another; and quite a lot live within just one mile.

Also, quite a few people living apart together are caring for one another. Some of them don’t and some of them do. We found we needed to use four levels, to categorise them. Category level one is  ‘inclusive’ where a partner is regularly providing material care (that is physical care or financial care or emotional care). Then we go down the scale till we get to ‘nominal’ care, which is where care is hypothetical or absent. And as you might expect this nominal care was most common amongst those who thought it  was too early to live together. We found a similar gradation of care for children, when children were in the relationship. Some LATs acted like another parent, and some had nothing to do with the partner’s children in terms of care.

Here’s an example of inclusive care: George and Katherine.  They have been together for 33 years, they preferred to live apart. And like Angela’s example from the interviews, they were now talking about possibly having to live together because they were both getting so infirm, that it  would be easier to provide care this way, though they had always preferred to live apart. Most people living apart together are more or less like any other couple, it is just that they live apart. For most, cohabitation  remains a goal or an ideal and many think about things like marriage and children with their partner. But at the same time it’s not just a traditional relationship because these people do come at it in a different way and it does give the potential for greater autonomy and space in a relationship especially, perhaps, for women.

Sasha Roseneil: By ‘psychosocial’ I mean that we are starting from a perspective that sees people, sees individuals, as becoming who they are through the history of their relationships. We all become who we are because of the relationships we had in the past – from our earliest relationships, across biographical time to our most recent relationships.   We are all subject to unconscious as well as conscious forces, so we have an inner life, an inner world that has irrational motivations that often elude our own understanding;  that we can’t always explain why we behave how we behave. And we often behave in ways that sabotage our best intentions. We may have a set of ideas, a set of beliefs about how we want to be in the world, about how we want to live, but somehow we find ourselves not quite doing that at times,  we depart from our stated principles and our moral compass, and we have feelings that are often powerful drivers of how we feel and  behave but we can’t put quite into words.

So we used a method which involved asking one simple question of people to start with, “Can you tell me the story of your life and personal relationships? All the events and experiences that are important to you?”

The brief findings.  First of all, the responses allowed us to look at LAT relationships in a life history perspective, through the history of their lives.  And we found a considerable diversity amongst our interviewees.  We’ve broken them down into four groups:

  • Younger people who had never cohabited with a partner and had previously had a few short-term LAT relationships, some of whom might hope to live with a partner, who already had an idea they might do that, but some of whom weren’t considering that.
  • People in mid-life who are mostly married to their LAT partner and all of whom had previously lived with their LAT partner were the second group we identified.  So if they were not married they had previously cohabited with this partner, and this partner was the most important person in their life. And most of them expected they would live together again in the future.
  • Thirdly a group for whom this current LAT relationship came after the breakdown of a previous significant married or cohabiting relationship, so this was a kind of “recovery relationship” .  They might or might not have seen this as being a really significant relationship. In terms of the story of their life, the previous relationship was the really big relationship.
  • Then finally we have another group, the fourth group, who had really quite complex relationship histories. These are people who often don’t get studied by people looking at family life. They are people who had quite messy relationship histories with quite a lot of different partners, sometimes having been married or cohabiting several times and having had other relationships, non-cohabiting relationships as well.

What can we understand psychosocially? First of all, I think, we can see that the stories that people told us revealed a complex web of personal biographical and relational factors that play a part in living apart together relationships. And putting physical distance into a relationship or keeping distance within an intimate relationship was related to one or more of the following four psychosocial factors from the stories our interviewees told us.

  • One of these was that living apart for some people was a way of trying to protect themselves from further emotional pain or abuse. So these interviewees have had previous troubled relationships which had left a significant, a kind of psychological mark on them. For instance, aggressive or controlling behaviour, domestic violence, abuse, or a partner’s death. Some of this group also had histories of abandonment and fractured relationships from childhood, sometimes from childhood to the present, sometimes they have been carrying that kind of traumatic experience from childhood.
  • The second – LAT relationships for some people were about trying to protect others, particularly children and other family members. So these were interviewees who were putting a sense of family obligation and the desire to ensure the wellbeing of their dependents before living with their partners and quite often this was about teenage children,  sometimes younger children and sometimes it was elderly parents.
  • The third way in which we can understand these relationships psychosocially is that for some people living apart, having distance in the relationship, was actually the only way the relationship was possible. It was a way of trying to make a relationship sustainable and possible that would be threatened by too much close day-to-day contact or interdependence or emotional intensity. These were people who had often recovered quite substantially from previous traumatic experiences in their lives, so they weren’t directly trying to protect themselves (as the first group were).  But there was a sense in which they felt the relationship was only possible because they lived apart. It was the space between them that made intimacy possible.  This is subtly different from the final strand that we saw.
  • The final group were people who were putting distance in the relationship in order to prioritise themselves and their need for self-realisation or autonomy. This may be one of the ways we commonly think about LATs but it was actually only one of the ways that people came to be LATs.  These were interviewees who wanted to have time or space for their individual paths and passions, perhaps a particularly time consuming hobby or career that was more important to them than living with their partner.  These people talked in terms of what they needed as an individual and how they needed space for themselves.

As I think we’ve demonstrated living apart together is a pretty common relationship practice.  A minority relationship practice, yes, but it’s there and it is a significant minority practice.  Yet it has been ignored by the census and by pretty much all social, family and household surveys; so it’s rarely recognized by those collecting administrative information about users of services in the public or private sectors. And it means that many people who are in relationships currently misrecognized as being single. So we suggest first of all that LAT should be a recognized relationship status; it should be an option that people can fill out when they’re asked to complete forms, it should be counted in official statistics and surveys, because it’s important for all those of us who are trying to understand contemporary relationships,  contemporary family life.

We also think that there should be consideration given to extending some sort of legal recognition to those in LAT relationships on an opt-in basis, not compulsory at all, but to those who want it. This would mean for instance that they could secure recognition by health-care providers as next of kin, because at the moment if you are asked who is your next of kin when you go to the hospital, it is very straight forward if you are married, and if you’re not then it’s ‘ do you have a cohabiting partner?’  The option of having a partner you  don’t live with us is never raised. Yet, many people have a cohabiting partner who they wouldn’t consider to be effectively the next of kin. We also think that there should be recognition of the prevalence of, and the needs of, those in that relationships by providers of personal social care services, and particularly by those interested in providing family relationship support, given the significant minority of people who are living apart together.

Penny Mansfield: Whatever the kind or status of a relationship, whether it’s cohabiting or not, the way people manage togetherness and separateness is really important.  Because of its interesting methodology, this study is exciting – it opens up those things. We can actually understand the numbers of people, and who is living in that way, and also look at what living apart together actually means.

I mentioned this thing ‘togetherness’ because I think that’s quite an important way in which people describe the need to be in a couple relationship. There are different levels of togetherness and I think these findings are explaining that a little bit more.

There is an assumption that people live together, and shock horror if people in a relationship are not living together.   Take the sixties – that was the time when more people got married than ever before or since, indeed I think somebody described it as a time when people were like lemmings jumping off a cliff, because there was a sense that marriage was about the way in which you defined yourself as an adult, and since being part of the 60s was: “I want it, and I want it now, and I want it young”, the average age of marriage came down to something like 21 for women and 23 for men.  And when we come to the 80s.  In the study I did on marriage on the cusp of the 70-80s, only a quarter of people were actually living together before they got married, but during the 80s, gradually, living together before marriage became the norm and indeed increasingly an alternative to marriage.

So when I think of the group here, the young people who are perhaps in dating relationships, the fact that they’re not living together might actually be quiet interesting.  There has been a lot of discussion about relationships, that perhaps people move into living-together relationships too soon and unnecessarily so that many people therefore experience a kind of “mini-divorce” in their twenties, particularly those who move in together as students or in their early twenties.  We could see this as having sexual relationship that are not “domesticated” sexual relationships, this may be quite a good thing in terms of what we are discovering about the sort of couplings people have in their late teens and twenties.

Looking at the reasons people gave for living apart together,  31% percent thought it was too early.  I think it’s really quite helpful that people are thinking about living together in that kind of way.

As for those who felt constrained,  this is concerning in the sense that people who want to move in together (either to get married or to cohabit) but who find it just very difficult to do that,  are not able to practise their relationship in a way that they think is important to them. At the present moment, with housing being such an issue that may increasingly be a point we have to consider.

The situational or negative preference people.  What’s  interesting is the degree to which people are ambivalent about the value of sharing a home together. But I also think it’s interesting and perhaps growing thing,  for people who have finished a relationship and have children to say, “I want to have a relationship, but I don’t want to impose my relationship on my children, or have my new partner being sort of like a father.  I have certainly observed amongst my own generation the number of women who after their divorce had significant relationships, lovers, who were very important to them, but didn’t want them to move in because they felt that they would have upset the stability for their children.  And I actually have to say, looking at those families, ten, fifteen years later, I think that it was of great value to those children and to those families.

I’m not sure that I would feel that this present research would justify looking on LAT as a status.  I want to get a sense of what both parties think.   This is research that is one person’s view.  One thing I remember in actually studying people who got married, when I interviewed them three months after the wedding (and we commented on this in our book), sometimes the only thing they seem to agree on was the actual date of the wedding.  When they started to have sex –  they didn’t agree about; and when it became serious; lots of things.

Legal recognition, certainly the issue of next of kin is interesting.  I’ve worked a lot with medical practitioners, GP, nurses, health visitors, and I think there is an awareness of being sensitive to help people define their own relationships –  that recognition by providers is really important, this notion of who is significant in your life?

But I think the last point for me is this:  a key feature of very strong and stable couple relationships, whether they’re married, heterosexual, same-sex is what Robert Weiss called ‘reliable assurance’. Where people feel they could rely on a partner when they are ill, when they have financial problems. I think the fact that only 20% of the LAT couples said that their partner would care for them when they were ill, and just 34% said that they would turn to their partner if they had a problem they were unable to sort out, is something that is concerning, and increasingly so, given the disruption to the provision of services that we see now  – and that we will see more of.  We have to recognize the real importance of that kind of reliable relationships for people in terms of building social capital and certainly for older people. And it’s interesting that you were saying that some of the interviewees were thinking that they might have to move in together in order to enjoy that, or to be perceived in that way.

So it’s fascinating research. I think it’s what I would call beautiful research because I love it when people actually look at things in different ways, it gives us so much to understand about the nature of modern relationships; but most of all, it underlines how fragile they are, how complex they are, and how incredibly important they are to all of this.

Methodology:  The study was conducted between 2011 and 2012 using multi-method analysis: a quantitative representative national survey of almost 600 LATs, qualitative semi-structured interviews with 50 LAT couples and finally psychological biographical narrative interviews.




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